On a more serious note . . .

I don’t often venture into the world-issues, political stuff on my blog — have my own reasons for that. But I’d like to share some points from a class discussion I had today. I think it’s important in a few ways. So this post is about making an effort to see both or all sides of an issue, becoming informed and aware, and thinking critically, and how I tried to model that process with my class.

I was talking to my students today about the Syrian refugee crisis, and how my nation is taking in 25,000 people. We’ve visited the issue before in my daily media round-up, when I go through news articles and take a look at what’s in the headlines in the world. And it’s been a subject of discussion with my parents, and my hubby as well (and we don’t see eye-to-eye, as usual, but I’m okay with that). I’ve seen a lot of division in the issue. My grade 12s were readily able to deconstruct the pros and cons of the decision by the government, which was good to see.

For example, on the “nay” side, we have a significant crisis in our own nation right now regarding the living conditions of vast numbers of Aboriginal Canadians in remote communities, children living in poverty, homelessness, veterans suffering PTSD, and numerous environmental issues, not the least of which is the effort to reduce our carbon emissions and redirect industry/society to more sustainable methods of producing and using energy. (Each of those is worth its own separate discussion, of course.) Some Canadians feel that our tax money ought to stay within our own borders, trying to make things better here, with job creation, protection for the vulnerable, etc. Some of my students didn’t think it was fair that the refugees might receive housing and money from the government when there are so many in need who were actually born here. We’ll get to that.

In addition, some people are concerned about the possibility of there being wolves in the sheep’s clothing — that individuals seeking to harm others, part of rebel or terrorist factions, might have been planted among the refugees, and directed to cause havoc once they make it to another country. The concern has been addressed, with logical reassurances, but there are still individuals out there who are skeptical, cynical, and watching with suspicion. Some are also worried that large numbers of the refugees aren’t truly trying to escape a crisis, but are looking for an easy migration route and taking advantage of Western society’s generosity. As a history teacher, it’s clear to see a pattern exists of distrust of large groups of immigrants coming to our country, even in this so-called enlightened year of 2015.

Okay, so that’s a summary of the CON side to accepting a massive body of Syrian refugees. After we looked at that, I asked them to consider the PROS: Firstly, that in helping families and individuals to live in a place without bombings and the other atrocities of the Syrian conflict, Canada is living up to its role of being a positive leader in the world. Nobody wants any more children or vulnerable people to die in this conflict. And statistically and practically speaking, those who are being admitted within our borders are not looking to bring the conflict with them — I realize that there are always a few exceptions, like how a few years ago there may have been some groups in Toronto who were on opposite sides of a conflict and protesting or agitating against each other, but the matter was addressed.

Put it this way: in 1939, a boatload of Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled Germany wanted our help, and we refused to let them in. In fact, every country they went to for help said “no”, and the result was that they were forced to return to Europe, facing persecution, torture, and death. Human beings should not act in such a way again — humanity is better than that.

Another point is that our country has made a point of being a refuge for the persecuted ever since WWII ended, and although some people worry about the paucity of jobs, the fact is that Canadians do not reproduce enough to keep the economy going. We haven’t in a long time. Our birth rate is low, and immigration helps us with that.

Counter: Shouldn’t we have less people anyway? It’s better for the planet!

Another counter: Retirees aren’t even retiring! They’re coming back, or not leaving the jobs at all. 

(Segue into another quick look at why that is, why the economy today doesn’t let people retired in the way they used to . . . and then back to the discussion.)

Finally, with regard to expense: the article I had originally started the discussion with gave details about housing (Syrian refugees are to be given temporary accommodations on Armed Forces bases until they can arrange their own) and money (a very, very small allowance for food, shelter, and transportation:

Refugees receive the equivalent of social assistance for the first year from the government. In Vancouver, for example, for a family of four, that works out to about $1,350 a month for food, shelter and transport, making finding an apartment a daunting prospect.

“Housing is the No. 1 priority,” says Friesen, calling on Canadians to think about what they might contribute.

“We’re not picky. We’ll take anything and everything at this point — rooms in people’s homes, basement suites, apartment suites,” he added.

Less than $1500 a month for a fresh start in a country without bombs, with clean water and freedom to live as you choose as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else — money isn’t the issue. Not really. As my students are aware from our looks at social class, consumerism, and capitalism (three of our course themes), that’s well below poverty level.

At the end of our discussion, the last thing I told my students was this, because I’m well aware that my bias was showing in spite of my efforts to be impartial (e.g., acknowledging each perspective, running down the reasons for those points of view), and I wanted them to know that I knew it: I don’t have all the answers to this controversial question, a question that’s already been decided by our leaders. But if you want to know what’s going on, where your tax dollars are going, then you have to read. You have to follow the reports and ask questions, be aware of decisions and the reasons behind them. Do the research.

It’s funny, you know, but when I started the semester I had questioned whether to continue my habit of looking at the news at the start of each class. I know that some of them just tune it out, and occasionally an article becomes a teachable moment, which is great, but it can derail my lesson plan equally efficiently. But by mid-September, some of the kids who’d already had me as their teacher were asking for that element to come back into the class because they did like finding out what’s going on. I don’t just do the negative news, or the controversial — I try to temper it with good news, innovations, and funny things, because I don’t want anyone’s depression or anxiety to rise up (including my own). But I think today’s quick and informal debate was really good. I heard some voices that I don’t always hear in the classroom, heads were raised and critical thinking was happening. All I can hope now is that they will follow up with their own readings and figure out their positions on their own.


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